On 28 July 2016 Abu Mohammed al Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), al Qaeda’s (AQ) affiliate in Syria, announced that “We (JN) declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS), noting that this new organisation has no affiliation to any external entity”.[i] The announcement was the most recent step in an on-going process to re-brand JN, that had begun in 2015 (see my previous blog Re-branding Jabhat al-Nusra, 22 July 2015).
Astute observers were quick to question what the announcement actually meant. Jolani did not state that JN was splitting from al Qaeda, nor did he renounce his oath of Bayah to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. He also expressly stated that JN would not compromise or sacrifice its solid beliefs. Given that al Qaeda is widely reported to have a presence both inside Syria and JN, it is unclear what the reference to having no affiliation to any external entity actually means in terms of relations between JFS and al Qaeda. It therefore seems that the announcement did not represent any substantive change to the group’s affiliations, objectives and methods.[ii] This raises significant question marks about how effective this latest re-branding will be. In order to assess its effectiveness, it is first necessary to understand the purpose of the announcement and its intended audience.
Audience and intention
In 2015, the attempted re-branding of JN was primarily about portraying the group as a “moderate” organisation in order to gain international legitimacy and pave the way for regional powers to provide it with increased supplies of weapons. This approach failed, not least because JN retained its affiliation to AQ and made no attempt whatsoever to moderate its behaviour in the areas in which it operated. In contrast, Jolani addressed the 2016 announcement to “my fellow Muslims everywhere, to the honourable people of Syria”.
He claimed that the purpose of the announcement was to “bridge the gaps between the groups of Mujahideen and ourselves … to form a unified body …”, and in doing so would “… expose the deceptions of the international community … in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al-Sham under the pretence of targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate”.
Whilst Jolani was explicit about his primary audience, he would also have known that the announcement would be scrutinised by the international community. Coming so soon after a joint US and Russia announcement on future cooperation against JN, Jolani’s statement has prompted speculation that it was an attempt to ward off future airstrikes.
Recognising that the previous attempt to re-brand JN as a “moderate” organisation had failed, this latest attempt at re-branding is focused instead on portraying JFS as a legitimate and integral part of the Syrian revolutionary movement. The target audiences are the Syrian people, other rebel groups, and the international community. This can be seen as a direct response to grievances raised within the Syrian revolutionary movement and the wider Syrian population, that JN took its orders from the AQ leadership rather than the Syrian people. This was considered to have undermined the Syrian revolution in the eyes of the international community, and to have resulted in JN committing widespread abuses in the areas in which it operated, such as the massacre of 20 Druze civilians in the town of Qalb Lawzah in June 2015, and in-fighting with a number of more moderate rebel groups. Widespread protests against JN in Idlib and Aleppo provinces during 2015 and 2016, amply illustrated the extent to which it was losing popular support.[iii]
Reaction within the Syrian Revolutionary Movement
Within the Syrian revolutionary movement, the announcement was widely believed to have been a declaration that JN was splitting from AQ. This was undoubtedly the message that JN had hoped the Syrian population would take from the announcement, but there was also disagreement within the revolutionary movement about whether the perceived split was genuine or not.
Within minutes of the announcement, a spokesperson for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the Syrian opposition’s main negotiating bloc, stated that “We look at it with relief … This will reflect somehow positively on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who has been fighting ISIL and al-Nusra for the past six months, because Russia is bombing and hitting FSA positions and civilian neighbourhoods with the excuse that they are hitting al-Nusra.”[iv] But shortly after that statement, the official spokesman for the HNC, declared that the announcement would have no positive effect on the situation on the ground, because it has “not been accepted internationally,” and “failed to mention changes to the group’s makeup and goals.”[v] In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria unequivocally welcomed the announcement, declaring that “disassociating from al Qaeda” was crucial to nationalize the revolution and unite with the Syrian people.[vi]
Amongst Jihadi theorists there was a widespread belief that the announcement did represent a genuine split between JN and AQ, but opinion about the desirability and legitimacy of such a move was mixed. The AQ theorist, Tarek Abdul Haleem, argued that “Nusra, with its breaking of ties, overturns a legitimate pledge of allegiance,” something that approaches apostasy. The Islamic scholar Hani al-Subaie also believed that the breaking of ties overturns a legitimate pledge of allegiance, and “corrupts more than it serves”. In contrast, the salafi jihadi theorist Abou Mohamed al-Maqdissi stated that he “respects the judgement of the mujahideen. They saw the interests of the jihad and support for Islam and Muslims.” The salafi jihadi theorist Abou Baseer al-Tartousi also welcomed the breaking of ties as a step in the right direction, but argued that it came late.[vii]
Amongst the armed rebel groups there was also a widespread belief that JN was splitting with AQ, but also significant differences of opinion about its implications. Ahrar Al Sham welcomed the announcement and called for further moves towards unity among the rebel factions, whilst Ajnad al-Sham even declared its willingness to merge with JFS.[viii] However, these were groups with which JN had historically co-operated on the battlefield, and with whom they were already co-operating with in the planning of a forthcoming offensive to relieve the siege of Aleppo. Their reactions are therefore unsurprising and say little about whether the re-branding would have any impact on those groups which had previously been opposed to JN.[ix]
In contrast, the spokesman for the Saudi-backed group Jaish al-Islam (JaI), declared that the move was “not enough” to win over the Syrian people. “Without a doubt, the Nusra Front cutting ties with AQ is in the best interest of the people and their revolution to liberate the enslaved and oppressed Syrians from a brutal sectarian regime … however, it is simply not enough.”[x] JaI was a rival of JN, so its reaction is also unsurprising. The Revolutionary Forces of Syria media office, which is a mouthpiece for the FSA, did not mention the announcement at all. This suggests that reaction to the announcement among the armed rebel groups was split along previously existing lines of co-operation, and has had little impact on bridging those divides.
On social media, initial reaction among pro-rebel activists writingin the English language (both inside and outside of Syria) was surprisingly muted, with very little comment at all. Most of those who tweeted about the announcement simply reported that JN had “cut ties” or “broke ties” with AQ. They reported it factually like any other development, neither welcoming it nor commenting on it.[xi] Many activists, such as Khaled al Homsi, Hadi al Abdallah, and Raed Fares never mentioned it at all in their Twitter feeds.[xii] These activists were more concerned with reporting developments on the ground rather than the announcement. This suggests that most activists would ultimately judge the announcement in terms of whether and how JFS changes its behaviour on the ground in the areas in which it operates.
Among the social media activists writing in the English language who did pass comment, those who are seemingly more Islamist in orientation welcomed the announcement, whereas the seemingly more secular activists questioned it. Mostafa Mahamed who had previously argued that JN was deeply rooted within Syrian society and the people of Syria would stand with it, welcomed the formation of JFS as a stepping stone towards a real, lasting unity.[xiii] In contrast @_alHamra, saw it as part of a longer term plan by JFS to dominate the revolutionary movement. He likened JN leaving AQ and taking a new name to Stalin dissolving the Comintern in 1943 – a shrewd political move that lacked any real substance.[xiv] Whilst US-based Syrian activist, Tawfiq Alkeilani emphasised that JN had previously stated that it would not change its ideology, and claimed that the break away from AQ would not convince a 5 year old, let alone the US and Russia.[xv]
This is only a very small sample of pro-rebel social media activists, but the findings are consistent with the results of Interviews with opposition activists inside Syria conducted by al Jazeera. A few believed that the announcement meant that the US and others would no longer consider JFS to be a terrorist organisation, and that more international backers would now support rebel groups. However, most of the activists in Aleppo did not believe what Jolani had said, and did not trust his motivations. Some wondered whether it was some kind of publicity stunt to get more support from the international community, with many questioning whether it would have any practical impact.[xvi]
There was also surprisingly little comment from English language pro-rebel media outlets. Syria-based Qasioun News reported that JN was breaking ties with al Qaeda in order to deny foreign powers a pretext for attacking Syrians, but did not analyse the content of the announcement in any detail. In contrast, neither the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nor the Jordan-based Syria Direct, even mentioned the announcement. Perhaps the most critical analysis was published in the Syria-based Zaman al Wasl, which reported that “JN announced that it was changing its name in order to distance itself from the al-Qaeda brand. The manoeuvre was a well-executed public relations move, having convinced some segment of observers and even jihadists of the veracity of the split between the groups, but it was neither substantial nor unprecedented for the parent organization.”[xvii]
Reaction among the mainstream media
Amongst western media, including the BBC, CNN and France 24, the announcement was also widely reported as confirmation that JN had split from AQ. However, these reports also included widespread coverage of the reaction from the US Administration, which had expressed significant doubts about whether the purported split was genuine and also highlighted the fact that JFS had not changed its ideology.[xviii] Even Charles Lister, a widely acknowledged expert analyst on Syria who is widely quoted in the media, initially described the announcement as JN “breaking ties” with AQ, although he quickly changed his position to describe it as a “re-branding”.[xix]
Among the regional media, reporting in English language Qatari owned and based media, was similar to that in the western media. It largely reported the announcement as a “split”, but also reported doubts about it likely motivations and potential impact. Reporting by al Jazeera and the Daily Star (Lebanon) closely resembled the reporting in the western media.[xx] In contrast, Al Araby al Jadeed was more critical, basing its report on the doubts expressed by the HNC spokesperson and JaI.[xxi] Orient News, a Doha-based pro-rebel TV station captured the meaning of the announcement best, when it described the announcement as JN “disassociating” itself from AQ.[xxii] It did not articulate what “disassociating” meant in practice, but it implied that JN was simply putting some distance between itself and al Qaeda rather than splitting from it. Yet it also published an opinion piece the following day which boldly declared that JN and AQ had split, and that the creation of JFS marked “a new chapter in the Syrian revolution”.[xxiii]
The Turkish media, which largely follows a pro-government editorial policy, also reported that JN was splitting from AQ. Significantly however, it did not report any of the doubts that the Western and Qatari media generally did. Daily Sabah cited in its report a tweet by Chares Lister, stating that “Whatever Nusra does, its ultimate objective is to further embed itself into Syria’s revolution and secure its long-term future as a legitimate rebel group”. Whilst, Hurriyet cited Lister as saying Jolani “can now call upon a broad spectrum of armed groups in Syria to agree to unite initiatives.”[xxiv] Both newspapers used these selective quotes to imply that JFS would now become just like any other rebel group operating in Syria.
A Job Half done
The big question for JFS now, is to what the extent its target audience has bought into the announcement. The sources cited in this article are only a small fraction of the available sources, but they seem to suggest that the announcement has been successful in convincing the international and regional media, other rebel groups, and revolutionary activists that JFS has split from AQ.
However, these sources also suggest that the announcement has failed to persuade many Syrians that there has been any change whatsoever in JN/JFS’s ideology and objectives. The reaction among rebel activists suggests that for the re-branding to convince the wider Syrian revolutionary movement and population that JN is now just another mainstream rebel group, it needs to change its behaviour on the ground. Yet within days of the announcement, JFS was reported to have been harassing the rebel radio station, Radio Fresh, and the activist Raed Fares, in Idlib province.
For the re-branding to be successful, JFS needs to continue to build on it by further embedding itself with other rebel groups, reviewing its objectives, and changing the way that it behaves in the areas in which it operates. JFS took an important first step by spearheading the rebel offensive which broke the siege of Aleppo in August 2016, but it will be its behaviour over the longer term, particularly in non-frontline areas which will determine whether the rebranding proves to be a success.
[i] Al-Nusra leader Jolani Announces Split From al-Qaeda, al Jazeera, July 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/al-nusra-leader-jolani-announces-split-al-qaeda-160728163725624.html.
[ii] See for example, Thomas Jocelyn, Analysis: Al Nusrah Front rebrands itself as Jabhat Fath Al Sham, The Long /war Journal, 28 July 2016, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/07/analysis-al-nusrah-front-rebrands-itself-as-jabhat-fath-al-sham.php; Twitter, @jenanmoussa, 28 July 2016; Al-Qaeda Steps Back to Let Nusra Move Forward in Syria, Zaman al Wasl, 3 August, https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/17204.html.
[iii] A Year After The Killing Of Tens Of Their Fighters… A Demonstration In al-Atareb Hold Jabhat Al-Nusra Responsible For Staying With “al-Qaeda Organization”, /Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 29 February 2016, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=44588; Twitter, @ShamiRebel, 29 July 2016, 28 July 2016; Has Nusra Broken Ties With Al-Qaeda?, Al-Souria.Net, 26 July 2016, translated and published by the Syrian Observer, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/31401/Has_Nusra_Broken_Ties_With_Al_Qaeda.
[iv] Al-Nusra leader Jolani announces split from al-Qaeda, al Jazeera, July 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/al-nusra-leader-jolani-announces-split-al-qaeda-160728163725624.html.
[v] Syrian Rebels Cast Doubts Over Nusra Split With al-Qaeda, al Araby, 30 July, 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/30/syrian-rebels-cast-doubts-over-nusra-split-with-al-qaeda.
[vi] Twitter, @IkwanSyriaEn, 29 July 2016.
[vii] Three Possible Scenarios For Nusra After Cutting Ties With Al-Qaeda, Al-Souria Net (opposition website), 1 August 2016, translated and republished by Syrian Observer, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31430/Three_Possible_Scenarios_Nusra_After_Cutting_Ties_With_Al_Qaeda
[viii] Twitter, @CharlesLister, 30 July 2016.
[ix] Three Possible Scenarios For Nusra After Cutting Ties With Al-Qaeda, Al-Souria Net (opposition website), 1 August 2016, translated and republished by Syrian Observer, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/31430/Three_Possible_Scenarios_Nusra_After_Cutting_Ties_With_Al_Qaeda.
[x] Syrian Rebels Cast Doubts Over Nusra Split With al-Qaeda, al Araby, 30 July, 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/30/syrian-rebels-cast-doubts-over-nusra-split-with-al-qaeda.
[xi] Twitter, @Malcolmite, 28/7/2016; Twitter, @bdrhmnhrk 28/7/2016.
[xii] Twitter, @MozimmalH, Twitter, @PalmyraPioneer, Twitter, @HadiAlabdallah.
[xiii] Twitter, @AbuSulaymanMM, 28 July 2016,17 July 2016.
[xiv] Twitter, @_alHamra, 4 August 2016, & 28 July 2016.
[xv] Twitter, @ShamiRebel, 29 July 2016, 28 July 2016.
[xvi] Al-Nusra Leader Jolani Announces Split From al-Qaeda, al Jazeera, 28 July 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/al-nusra-leader-jolani-announces-split-al-qaeda-160728163725624.html.
[xvii] Al-Qaeda Steps Back to Let Nusra Move Forward in Syria, Zaman al Wasl, 3 August, https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/17204.html.
[xviii] Syrian Nusra Front Announces Split From al-Qaeda, BBC Newsonline, 29 July 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36916606; Syria’s al-Nusra Rebrands And Cuts Ties With al Qaeda, CNN, 29 July 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/28/middleeast/al-nusra-al-qaeda-split/; Al-Nusra Front Split From al Qaeda ‘A Deft Political Maneuver’, France 24, 30 July 2016, http://www.france24.com/en/20160730-syria-al-nusra-front-split-al-qaeda-deft-political-maneuver.
[xix] Twitter, @Charles_Lister, 27 July 2016.
[xx] Al-Nusra leader Jolani Announces Split From al-Qaeda, al Jazeera, July 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/al-nusra-leader-jolani-announces-split-al-qaeda-160728163725624.html; Al-Qaeda And The Nusra Front Split Up, Daily Star (Lebanon), 29 July 2016, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2016/Jul-29/364523-al-qaeda-and-the-nusra-front-split-up.ashx.
[xxi] Syrian Rebels Cast Doubts Over Nusra Split With al-Qaeda, al Araby, 30 July, 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/30/syrian-rebels-cast-doubts-over-nusra-split-with-al-qaeda.
[xxii] Nusra Front’s al-Julani Dissociates It From al-Qaeda, Renames It Jabhat Fatth al-Sham – Orient News Exclusive, Orient News, 28 July 2016, http://orient-news.net/en/news_show/118805/0/Nusra-Fronts-al-Julani-dissociates-it-from-al-Qaeda-renames-it-Jabhat-Fatth-al-Sham—Orient-News-Exclusive.
[xxiii] Fatth al-Sham: A New Chapter In The Syrian Revolution, Orient News, 29 July 2016, http://orient-news.net/en/news_show/118875/0/Fatth-al-Sham-A-new-chapter-in-the-Syrian-revolution.
[xxiv] Al-Nusra Chief In Syria Says Group Changing Name And Breaking With Qaeda, Daily Sabah, 28 July 2016, http://www.dailysabah.com/mideast/2016/07/28/al-nusra-chief-in-syria-says-group-changing-name-and-breaking-with-qaeda; Al-Nusra In Syria Vows To Break Ties With al-Qaeda, Hurriyet Daily News, 29 July 2016, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/al-nusra-in-syria-vows-to-break-ties-with-al-qaeda.aspx?pageID=238&nID=102263&NewsCatID=352.